STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) – Banning Muslim headscarves in state schools does not violate the freedom of religion and is a valid way to counter Islamic fundamentalism, the European Court of Human Rights says.
In what could be a precedent-setting decision, the Strasbourg-based court rejected appeals by a Turkish student who was barred from attending Istanbul University medical school because her headscarf violated the official dress code.
The court decision, which takes precedence over national court rulings, could help the French government face court cases it expects to be filed in September against a headscarf ban it plans to impose in state high schools.
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“Measures taken in universities to prevent certain fundamentalist religious movements from pressuring students who do not practise the religion in question or those belonging to another religion can be justified,” the court ruling said.
Bans issued in the name of the separation of church and state could therefore be considered “necessary in a democratic society”, said the court, which is part of the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe whose members include Turkey.
Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has Islamist roots, had considered trying to end the headscarf ban but backed off after meeting stiff opposition from the fiercely secular military.
The decision could also effect cases in Germany where Muslim teachers are appealing against laws in several federal states barring them from covering their heads.
In the case before the court, former medical student Leyla Sahin was barred from taking an examination and then refused admission to a class because of her headscarf.
The court also considered a similar case filed by former nursing college student Zeynep Tekin, but discarded it because the plaintiff had recently withdrawn it. A court spokesman could not say when the case was withdrawn.
In their unanimous judgement, the seven judges said headscarf bans were appropriate when issued to protect the secular nature of the state, especially against extremist demands.
“The court has not overlooked the fact that there are extremist political movements in Turkey that are trying to impose on the whole of society their religious symbols and their idea of a society based on religious rules,” they wrote.
“The principle of secularism was surely one of the founding principles of the Turkish state,” they added. “Safeguarding this principle can be considered necessary for the protection of the democratic system in Turkey.”